True Lies

Scott McLemee reviews A Brief History of Fascist Lies by Federico Finchelstein.

April 10, 2020

At a book fair a couple of years ago, I spotted a volume called Against the Fascist Creep and wondered who the author was indicting. (Two or three candidates came immediately to mind.) But the creep in question was not a person but a process: the steady, predatory forward motion of the neofascist milieu. Pushing the Overton window to normalize authoritarian sentiment, it simultaneously assembles the forces to establish a new order of ethnic nationalism. The author, Alexander Reid Ross, emphasizes a striking and seemingly paradoxical thing about the process: the creep's globalization. While aggressively xenophobic, neofascists around the world influence one another and find ways to cooperate.

This is not a recent development. The effort to connect extreme right-wing parties in various countries into a world movement was underway in the 1930s and resumed after World War II. (Much of this is covered in Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International by the late Kevin Coogan, an independent scholar with whom I corresponded a little in the 1990s.) How seriously to take the notion of early-20th-century fascism as a coherent ideology, let alone a global movement, is a point of contention among historians; even treating Mussolini and Hitler as holding a common worldview and political program is no matter of consensus. But the existence of a contemporary international community of hard-right groups -- recognizing common political ancestors (e.g., Francis Parker Yockey, Julius Evola and Carl Schmitt) and studying more recent strategic developments (especially Alexander Dugin's Fourth Political Theory and the European network of New Right intellectuals associated with Alain de Benoist) -- is a fact of life in the 21st century.

Another such fact is the election of figures known for their nativism, misogyny and violent rhetoric to the highest national offices in Brazil, Hungary and the United States. The past may not be repeating itself, but the trend line is too bright to ignore. Federico Finchelstein's A Brief History of Fascist Lies (University of California Press) distinguishes between the new right-wing populism and the fascism of decades past while underscoring their common reliance on "questioning reality; endorsing myth, rage, and paranoia; and promoting lies." The lies being promoted are not of the sort typical in politics, where concealing unhelpful information is a matter of expediency (as is spreading helpful disinformation, on occasion).

For the author, a professor of history at the New School for Social Research, the lying of old-school fascists and new-model authoritarian populists is not just a means to an end but a kind of bond between leader and follower. The book's title is a little off, since its real concern is not with the history of fascist lying but rather its structure, which Finchelstein diagrams with the use of statements from sources familiar and otherwise: Benito Mussolini and Joseph Goebbels are cited, but so are fascist ideologues from China, India and a number of Latin American countries. In earlier works, he studied the relationship between the Italian and Argentinean fascists of the 1920s and '30s, pointing out how they not only influenced but also distinguished themselves from each other. Here his emphasis is decidedly on the overlap among the fascist movements of that era -- mapping a portion of the ideological genome they shared. Some of it is spreading, virus-like, into contemporary politics.

In Finchelstein's reading, the fascist movement posits a mental universe in which the existing bodies of knowledge, sources of information, and canons of logic are utterly corrupt and invalid. The world's truth is fake truth. The real truth is held by the leader and, by extension, his followers -- though it might be more accurate to say they manifest the truth rather than merely possess it, with the leader being its living incarnation. "The individual and collective desires of the people were embodied in the persona of the leader," Finchelstein writes, making him the perfect manifestation of popular sovereignty: "the people's power was permanently delegated to the leader, who acted as the best expression of the people's ideal self."

Thus the leader is the way, the truth and the light. All evidence to the contrary is a thing of darkness, to be disregarded until it can be destroyed. "Under fascism," the author says, "heroic political forces were supposed to be unleashed," restoring true greatness to the world and destroying the forces that had corrupted it. Remaining pure of that corruption in the meantime was a necessary though not sufficient demonstration of loyalty: "Fascists considered that the emergence of inner authenticity became a meaningful political act when it implied redemption through violence, sacrifice and death." Terrifying rhetoric would never be enough. But it was a start.

The interpretation of totalitarian movements as secular religions is not new, and Finchelstein's argument also bears some resemblance to Roger Griffith's concept of "palingenetic ultranationalism" as the core of fascist politics. A Brief History of Fascist Lies does not get caught up in the historiographical cross-talk about fascism; it is more of an effort to give certain ideas a hearing at a moment when they are of public as well as scholarly concern. Finchelstein's analysis definitely has implications for how to understand more recent developments.

Consider a statement by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro after he was elected in 2018: "We need to get used to living with the truth. There is no other way. Thanks to God, this truth was understood by the Brazilian people." Finchelstein is careful to point out that Bolsonaro, like Trump and a number of other recent leaders, "favor[s] violent rhetoric, and lies about the self and the enemy, without backing them up with violent action" -- at least not on the enormous and lethal scale associated with full-fledged fascist dictators. But Bolsonaro's self-reverential invocation of "truth," like the cult of personality now headquartered at the White House, manifests a certain way of looking at the world that counts as more than megalomania. Its cumulative effect on followers is a force unto itself.

"The attachment to the leader's 'truth' seems so secure that it transcends ethics and common sense," Finchelstein writes, "and justifies his most offensive and apparently illegal acts … This idea of politics as the site for an all-or-nothing pseudoreligious war between the sacred truth and the lies of a demonic enemy explains why political violence is preferable [for his followers] to the leader's electoral defeat." This is not a prediction, but it counts as fair warning.

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Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

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